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Reflections on Festivals

October 14th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

We are coming to the end of another bumper season of literary festivals.  From Hay to Edinburgh to Saffron Walden, it sometimes seems that every town and city in the land is getting out the French regional white wine to welcome writers.

At Cheltenham recently, where I was giving a session on travel writing, they told me that overall this year they had sold more than 100, 000 tickets before the festival had even begun – a staggering amount, and far more than they have in the past.

When VS Naipaul gave a talk there a few years ago, just after winning the Nobel Prize, he suggested that the growing success of such events is not accidental;  it is because the appetite for such highbrow literary debate is no longer being fed by the BBC.   And the Beeb could do well to pay more attention to the phenomenon.  There is talk of cutting Newsnight Review on BBC2, the last remnant of The Late Show enterprise that once lit up the channel.  Given that it only runs once a week, and after 11.00 at that, this hardly seems a sacrifice that is necessary to make.  And nor is the egregious Culture Show any substitute  – a much more lightweight magazine format, without the same sort of sustained debate that could make Newsnight Review – or indeed a literary festival – such fun.

The real difference is this:   that Newsnight Review – or a literary festival – assumes that there genuinely is an audience out there who are already interested in the arts and want to listen.  The Culture Show and the other slender offerings still produced by the Beeb act on the premise that no one can conceivably be interested unless the pill is sugar-coated, preferably with celebrity dust.  We won’t watch a programme on poetry unless Griff Rhys-Jones presents it:  ‘I love poetry and I’d love to convince you that it matters,” said Griff Rhys Jones in his wonderful cracked-mahogany voice, before embarking on an hour-long journey of non-discovery (see rest of the excellent review by John Walsh in the Independent) .

Of course there is another reason why literary festivals are so successful.  Despite whatever the organisers tell you, they make a lot of money.  Take some empty town halls, get writers down to publicise their work for a token fee (and that glass of white wine) and sell thousands of tickets at around £8 a shot.  Next time I’m going to ask for a vodka martini at the very least.

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